In our culture where “more is better,” Americans are taking more vitamins and minerals to promote better health. According to a 2013 Gallup poll, 68 percent of adults age 65 and older take vitamin supplements. A 2017 study in the Journal of Nutrition found that 29 percent of older adults take four or more supplements of any kind. Annual sales of vitamins and minerals are in the billions of dollars. What are the recommendations for these products, and should you be taking them?
Since 1999, The National Institutes of Health has spent more than $2.4 billion studying vitamins and minerals. Some studies have shown positive results from supplementation, and certain populations require supplements, like women of child-bearing age who need adequate folic acid from fortified foods or supplements and vegans who need supplemental B-12, since B-12 is found primarily in animal products. However, for “all the research we’ve done, we don’t have much to show for it,” said Dr. Barnett Kramer, director of cancer prevention at the National Cancer Institute. Despite some positive study results, there is not enough conclusive evidence to recommend supplements to the general American public.
Seniors, particularly those 70 and older, may need supplementation or a higher intake of foods fortified with vitamins B-12 and D, and the mineral calcium. The absorption of vitamin B-12 decreases with age, the skin’s ability to make vitamin D from sunlight declines, and calcium intake is often lower in the diet of many older adults.
The National Institutes of Health National Institute on Aging states: “Most older people don’t need a complete multivitamin supplement. But if you don’t think you are making the best food choices, look for a supplement sold as a complete vitamin and mineral supplement. It should be well balanced and contain 100% of most recommended vitamins and minerals.”
According to the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, "Nutritional needs should be met primarily from foods. Individuals should aim to meet their nutrient needs through healthy eating patterns that include nutrient-dense foods ... [which] contain essential vitamins and minerals and also dietary fiber and other naturally occurring substances that may have positive health effects.”
Nutrient-rich foods provide other health-promoting compounds, like carotenoids and polyphenols, that supplements cannot duplicate. Eating a diet with a variety of healthy foods should be your goal. Taking large amounts of certain vitamins and minerals can be harmful to your health. Remember that more is not necessarily better when it comes to supplements.
The New York Times: Older Americans Are ‘Hooked’ on Vitamins
The New York Times: Learning From the History of Vitamins